I have a taller, drunker, more experienced, overconfident person try to stab a shorter, sober, less experienced person (they have SOME experience, but knives/close combat isn’t their specialty so they’re better at Disengage-and-Get-the-Hell-out-of-Dodge than prolonged fighting). I’d like it to go Shorty: Yeep?! A knife? Both: Struggle over control of knife. Drunky: Loses control of the knife Shorty: Accidentally stabs Drunky in the chest/heart. I’d appreciate advice on how to have it go. Thanks!
Someone who is experienced with a knife knows precisely what it means when they draw one, even when they’re drunk.
They want to kill you.
If they’re drunk enough to be tipsy with their judgement impaired enough to commit murder in a public place but not drunk enough to be tripping over their own feet, then they’re going to be a very dangerous opponent. Knives are very good for killing at close ranges and drunken people can be very difficult to anticipate. Think about this, Drunken Fist is an entire martial art built around learning to move like you are drunk while being sober. This is because the way you move when you are drunk will throw experienced fighters off. A drunken person is looser, faster, and has their tells muted by the strange movements of their body. (Writing drunken characters is made easier if you yourself have ever been drunk, or been around people when they’re drunk.) You end up in a place where things will either go fantastically well while you’re on autopilot i.e. performing complex gymnastics you were too afraid to do before or driving yourself home without incident, or horribly. Drunk crashing, murder, falling to your death, and all other terrible to straight up weird things that can happen when your brain is not firing on all cylinders.
Just remember, when they’re drunk they have all the skills they possess when they’re sober. Their inhibitions are gone, which makes them more dangerous and not less. An angry drunk person is more likely to run you down with a car because they’re running on impulse and the concept of consequences is a distant third. Martial arts retrains your reflexes so you can function without thinking, react without thinking, and do what you want in the moment when you want to do it. Alcohol takes away the inhibitions that will stop you from doing what you want in the moment when you want to do it.
Now, here’s the worse news. Being able to anticipate your enemy’s movements in order to intercept their strikes before they reach extension is necessary when you’re looking at any kind of disarm, but especially with knives. You have less than a second to recognize what’s happening and react, which requires you see the draw coming from starting movements in their eyes, shoulder and chest muscles rather than when they actually pull the knife.
Knives are no game, they are deadly and you are much more likely to get stabbed while attempting any disarm than you are to take the knife away. Knife disarms are less dangerous than gun disarms, but that’s like saying your 99.9% chance of failure has been bumped down to 95%. You’ve got slightly better odds of survival, but they’re not great. You’ve got a better chance if you know what you’re doing than if you don’t, but the likelihood is that you’ll still get stabbed or accidentally impale yourself trying the disarm. If you’re not used to working with knives, you’ll lose track of the knife and its length. Your body’s reflexes won’t be trained to move completely out of the way, and you’re likely to get stabbed just trying to stop the blade from hitting you. It’s important to remember that knives are very dangerous even when you’re practiced, and in a scuffle it is easy to misjudge distance. If you fuck up, you’re getting stabbed, possibly multiple times in rapid succession. If you grab the blade, you’re getting cut or stabbed. If you fail to stop the arm before the attack gains inertia and don’t get out of the way, you’re getting stabbed. If you block the knife with your arm/forearm, you’re getting stabbed.
Knives are often portrayed as the smaller, less dangerous brother of the sword. That is not at all true. They are more dangerous, more flexible, more vicious in close quarters against unarmored/unarmed opponents, and do not require much skill to wield effectively. They are fast, they’re blink and you’ll miss it fast. This is zero to sixty in a fraction of a second with a bleed out following not long after.
Knives used in the hand range and are supplemental to fists. The fight begins in the range where the knife will have access to the entire body, and it is a weapon that can puncture your gut, sever tendons, and cut open muscles. Not only that, but you’re not going to get stabbed the one time. If they get the opportunity, you’ll most likely be stabbed six or seven in rapid succession.
Remember, if someone pulls a knife on you, they are threatening your life. The same is true for your characters. If they are in a situation where someone has pulled a knife on them, their life is being threatened. If they pull a knife on another character, they are threatening that character’s life. Regardless of the character’s intention when they draw their weapon, it is important to understand what the action means and what the threat is.
So, let’s talk about knife disarms.
Some Golden Rules of Knife Disarms
Don’t. Touch. The. Knife.
In knife combat, your target is the arm that holds the blade and not the blade itself. This is especially true if you are unarmed. So, don’t grab the blade. Grab the wrist. Grab the arm. Then, once the arm stops moving, you can take the knife by grabbing the handle and rolling it against your attacker’s thumb to forcibly release the grip.
Get Off The Vector!
You have to get away from the blade when that blade comes at at you. Your choices are to go forward, back, or to the side. Forward to stop the arm before the swing begins, backward to keep from getting stabbed while you go for the knife, sideways to get out of the way. You always want the knife off an attack vector on your body so that when you try to take the blade they can’t just lean into the attack a little harder and stab you.
They will do that, by the way. If you get a bad grip or they twist out of it, they can just roll over and finish what they started. Meanwhile, depending on which angle you stopped it, you risk getting cut/cutting yourself just moving the knife into position for the disarm.
Your combat reflexes are also a problem when dealing with knives, most of the traditional ways you’d move to block an attack will get you stabbed (albeit in a slightly different place than your aggressor intended.) One of the big issues with knife disarms is if you’re not worked to working with knives is that you’ll walk right into the strike even if you successfully “stopped” it.
Catch Before Extension or After. Do Not Try The Disarm During.
The rules of blocks and deflections are necessary to grasp if you want to write knife disarms. Against fists the difference is getting hit. With a knife, failure means you will be stabbed. Blocks and deflections are not about physical strength, they rely on disrupting the body’s mechanics.
In many martial arts, a punch or kick is broken down into stages.
Chamber. Extension. Recoil.
Chamber is when the arm or leg is bent before they extend into the strike. Stopping a punch or kick must be done before the arm or leg extends. If you want to stop a knife thrust, you need to catch that thrust in the moments before the arm fully extends i.e. while the elbow is still bent.
Extension is when the arm extends into motion, when it has gained momentum, and the moment before the elbow or knee locks into place.
Recoil is when the arm or leg withdraws after the strike, pulling back into the chambered position before returning to position.
The easy one to conceptualize is the overhead strike where the arm cycles into a downward arc to strike at the throat or shoulder. You catch the arm while it’s still behind the head before it reaches the zenith of the circle and begins to come down, i.e. while the elbow still points behind the head instead of facing you. This is the stage before the strike gains momentum. If you catch it too late, the strike will go through your block and hit you. With a knife strike, the stakes are higher. If you fail, you’re taking a blade to your shoulder, chest, or neck.
The second option with a knife is to catch the arm after it has extended, which means you must get out of the way of the strike first. The strike goes past you, and you catch the arm before it recoils for another strike.
Keep Track of the Knife.
You can deflect knife strikes, and that works under similar principles as a block. You redirect the arm somewhere else. The issue with this method is you need to have pinpoint precision for exactly how far the blade extends as part of their arm. In order to cut you, a knife just needs to connect. If any body part is within reach, it risks being cut. If your body is on line or on the same vector as the knife when you stop it, you risk your opponent pushing past the catch and stabbing you anyway. You need to track the extra reach of the blade at all times or risk being stabbed even when you do everything right. You always want your body off the knife’s vector, and the knife away from you.
When you’re writing knife combat this step is crucial to conveying tension and necessary to remember when you’re positioning your characters. In a fictional world, your characters will only be stabbed when you decide they will be. They only fail when you decide they will. This can lead to sloppy writing and negation of danger, which negates your tension if you’re not abiding by the rules. To convey that sense of danger, you need your audience aware of the knife; where it is, how close it is, what it’s doing, if your character let it stay on attack vector, tried to stop it, and didn’t get out of the way.
It’s All About The Thumb
Don’t fight four fingers when you can fight one. If you’re going to take a one handed weapon held in a forward facing grip away from someone, roll that weapon back against the thumb and twist. Focus on the weak points in the grip rather than attacking the whole grip.
Gotta Go Fast.
You don’t have time to play around with a knife, if you imagine a prolonged scuffle for the weapon or if your character gets into one then they significantly increased the likelihood they were getting stabbed. The closer that knife is to your body, the greater the chance of penetration, and even surface level nicks are deadly. They don’t need a single finishing blow, they can just cut away quick enough for you to bleed to death. This is the point of first blood, by the way. You take a wound to your body where you begin bleeding, no matter where that wound is, and you are at a serious disadvantage.
The longer this fight goes on, the more the advantage gets handed to the person with the weapon.
Onto some other problems.
The chest is not a good place to stab someone, you’re not getting to the heart unless you’re damn lucky. You’ve got an entire plate of bone called the sternum protecting it. The more necessary your body parts are, the more protection they get. You need a lot of force, and it’s just not worth the effort. Not when you have the stomach there and much readily available. Though, that’s not a quick death. You’re character can try but between their inexperience and the difficulty of the target, this drunk character isn’t going to die. The other major arteries are the same way, there’s not a lot of chance you’ll get them if you’re not experienced at finding them.
With a knife, you need to be skilled at using it in order to deliver sudden and immediate death otherwise you’re stuck with lingering, painful death from a slow bleed out after your major internal organs have been turned into chunky salsa.
Now, this fight is happening in a public place, so there’s a greater likelihood of this character receiving medical aid quick enough for them to survive or someone being close enough to intervene. More than that, where are their friends? And the other bystanders? And the bartender? I have a hard time imagining these two characters being the only ones duking it out in an empty bar.
A character used to disengagement isn’t going to take the option to fight a dangerous opponent against whom they’re outmatched if they can run away. That’s just… smart. A bar provides you with a lot of opportunities to do just that. There are a lot of options to get objects between yourself and the person attacking you in order to create the opening needed to get away. They’re also in the kind of tight quarters where they can’t control their own movement and could get forced into the knife by someone else in the environment or the environment itself. They’ve got no margin for error, and the bar is a situation where there’s a chance all the errors will occur.
You’re basically trying to engineer a situation where this character is forced to kill this other character. The goal is to use alcohol to force the situation and then level the playing field. The problem is you’ve got a character, by your own admission, where this kind of fight isn’t their forte and a situation where knife disarms need to be for them to be successful.
Taking a knife from someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing with it is difficult and you’re at high risk of getting stabbed. Taking a knife from someone who knows what they’re doing, even if they’re drunk, is almost impossible. They’ve trained their body and their reflexes to do this, even when they’re in no condition to be doing this. The drunken fencer accidentally killing another sober person is ironically more likely than the drunken fencer getting killed. Depending on how much they’ve drunk and what their tolerance is, the alcohol actually makes killing easier because it removes their inhibitions. They don’t have to second guess anything, they can just do. They call it liquid courage for a reason.
Now, that’s from a practical standpoint. From a narrative standpoint, this piece of violence will be trivial unless the death of this other character leads somewhere interesting with real, severe consequences for your protagonist. If the violence doesn’t go anywhere and just exists for cheap guilting or to prove the character can kill then it just isn’t interesting. Violence is a high risk tool with high risk consequences that you can use to create real stakes, but when violence is misused you also cheapen your entire narrative. You can destroy your stakes, wreck your tension, and end up boxed in by your own writing.
What’s the point?
Did this other character have a real reason to draw their knife on this other character and attempt to kill them? Or are they just a puppet sacrificed to establish the protagonist?
It better be a really good reason, let me tell you. Alcohol takes away inhibitions, but it doesn’t make you do anything you weren’t already prone to doing. The beef better be real, and based in the sort of emotional reaction you’d be willing to ruin your life over.
Where are the other characters?
Where is the bartender?
Who else is going to intervene?
When setting up a versus in your head, it is really easy to over focus on that and forget about everything surrounding your characters. A drawn weapon is a danger to everyone in the room, not just the character who is being threatened. Other people, whether they’re friends, allies, enemies, or strangers, will be inclined to jump in. A bar fight has stakes for the owner and employees of the establishment, they can’t stay in business if their bar isn’t safe. Drawing a weapon represents a direct threat to that safety for the social order.
These consequences and considerations are part of your world building. Ask yourself, is there someone close enough to stop this fight?
You may not see it that way, but you should be aware of the fact that the bar brawl scene is cliche. One countless other writers have already used for some cheap, consequence free violence to show how their protagonist is a badass. The violence in fictional bars rarely goes anywhere. Cheap violence damages your narrative.
So, don’t be cheap.
You don’t need a character behaving violently to show that the character is dangerous or knows what they’re doing. In fact, doing so runs counter to showing that.
Lastly, there’s no such thing as an accidental stabbing. This is especially true when you’ve killed the other person. Knives are like guns. They’re weapons used to kill the other person. Characters who have any experience with martial combat know that. They know what holding a knife means, the threat it represents, and how the combat is going to end. They or the other person will be seriously wounded or dead. Even when you’re wielding one in self-defense or fighting someone else with a knife, that is the outcome.
“Oh, but I didn’t mean to do that” is not a good justification, legally or narratively. “He was going to kill me so I killed him first” is better. “I killed him because I had to.” “I killed him to protect someone precious to me.” “I killed him because I wanted to.” “I killed him because he threatened my life.” “I killed him.” “I… yeah, I did.”
If you’re going to have your character kill another character, you need to put on your grown up pants and have them mean it. This is especially true when they’re trained. Accidents are not a get out of jail free card, or a great way to show your character knows what they’re doing but just couldn’t control it, or particularly meaningful way of raising the stakes.
Killing another person requires commitment. You don’t get there through half-measures. Humans are actually rather difficult to do in. We’re impressively good at killing each other, but it takes a fair amount of work. Besides, I mean, this character is drunk. He’s got a better than average chance of stabbing himself with the knife or falling on it and killing himself, or falling into a table and stabbing some innocent bystander long before this other character has time to take the knife from him.
You gotta commit. Whether in martial arts, or in your writing, or in life, you won’t get anywhere with half-measures. We cross the threshold by acting, by believing we’ll get there, and by committing to what we’re about to do. The same goes for your Shorty.
There aren’t clean endings to knife fights. Violence requires you be willing to hurt and even kill another person. The same is true whether or you’re on the giving or the receiving end. If they can’t commit, they’ll never stop that knife to begin with.
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